Wilson's success disproves his polemic

March 15, 1998|By Glenn McNatt

I WAS INTRIGUED by reports that black theater professionals met at Dartmouth College last week to continue the debate sparked by playwright August Wilson's 1996 call for a separate black theater. Wilson's idea strikes me as a little muddled, but it is interesting nevertheless.

Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and other plays, shocked the theater establishment two years ago when he delivered an address at Princeton University denouncing what he called "cultural imperialists who seek to propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas, and who see blacks as woefully deficient not only in arts and letters but in the abundant gifts of humanity."

That's certainly a mouthful. And there's some truth to it. But it's also the sort of polemical, over-the-top rhetoric that gives the game away. The evidence of Wilson's own career is the best argument against his cultural conspiracy theory.

Wilson believes that "mainstream" art and culture in America are essentially inimical to black artists because they rest on an implicit premise of white supremacy. For the black artist to traffic in such a "mainstream" on its terms is, in effect, to erase his or her own identity as a black person.

But that is exactly what has not happened in Wilson's case -- or to other black artists of comparable stature who have achieved success in the mainstream art world.

Toni Morrison, for example, is a superb novelist with a scholar's ,, xTC grasp of the Western literary tradition and its conventions. Yes, she has adapted that tradition to her unique vision as an African-American writer and feminist. But only the most polemical ideologue would suggest she has sacrificed her identity in the process.

Has Spike Lee sold out because his films owe something to the French New Wave? Doesn't Wynton Marsalis play Bach as well as bop, Kathleen Battle sing spirituals as well as Strauss? No one questions Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett's integrity as black actors merely because Hollywood beckons.

It's a fact that racism has pervaded American culture. But it seems to me that one of the more hopeful recurring patterns in our history has been the continual emergence of incredibly talented black artists, performers and writers in spite of this sad legacy. And there has never been a dearth of audiences for that talent.

The idea of a "mainstream" American culture shaped exclusively by and for white "cultural imperialists" is belied by the very magnitude of the contributions African-American artists have made to that culture. Far from being passive victims, black artists have been active creators and shapers of the country's cultural destiny.

That said, one can still sympathize with the particular problems facing black actors, writers and theater professionals. Their dilemma is a more severe form of the crisis threatening American theater generally.

Wilson envisions a network of locally directed, community- supported theaters where black actors, writers and theater technicians can thrive artistically and financially. The prognosis for realizing such a vision is not good, however.

High production costs and declining audiences increasingly -Z have made most regional theaters dependent on public subsidies. Public funding encourages theaters to put on plays that reflect the diversity of the communities where they are located -- Wilson's pieces have been a major beneficiary of this trend -- but it also limits the number of theaters that get significant government aid.

There is, in fact, an immensely popular, mass-audience black theater -- the so-called chitlin' circuit -- that takes its themes from the lives of ordinary people.

The plays on the chitlin' circuit have no pretensions to high art, and virtually all of them are traveling productions rather than locally based repertory companies. But they do make money for their performers and producers.

And thus the dilemma. Wilson sees theater as a form of revolutionary practice and consciousness-raising. Live theater is at once more subtle, more vibrant and more natural than movies or television. It is altogether a more ample stage for adventurousness regarding characterization and plot. But it is not cheap and probably never again will enjoy the status of a mass entertainment.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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